Poetry scares people.
Poets Laureate? That sounds like they should be wearing circles of laurel leaves on their heads and reciting from hilltops. Super scary.
The new Maryland Poet Laureate is the opposite of that image, though I would highly condone granting her a laurel leaf crown. Grace Cavalieri is more poetry’s grandma, albeit one who wears a leather motorcycle jacket and writes collections of poetry about Anna Nicole Smith.
“She is not a gatekeeper, but one who opens the gate and says, ‘Come in, you are welcome here,’ ” said poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, head of the Poet Laureate Selection Committee, who introduced Cavalieri on the last day of February at her induction party in Annapolis. (And will offer a workshop and read with Beth Ann Fennelly at this year’s Blackbird Poetry Festival.)
After Davis and other dignitaries finished praising her, Cavalieri beamed at the audience, including her four daughters sitting in the front row. She explained that at their family home, “Poetry has always sat at the table.”
For more than forty years, Cavalieri has hosted “The Poet and the Poem,” an interview show on public radio, now carried by the Library of Congress. She’s written more than 20 books and chapbooks of poetry, had 26 plays produced on the American stage, and won honors like the Pen-Fiction Award, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and the inaugural Columbia Merit Award from Folger Shakespeare Library.
Those awards sound off-putting, but Grace’s speech to the gathered crowd of past Maryland Poets Laureate, friends, former students at Columbia’s 1960s experimental Antioch College, fellow poets, and Italian cousins wasn’t.
“Here’s what poetry does. It slows us down,” Cavalieri said. “Poetry is a shelter, a haven, it’s dreaming on a page. Poetry keeps us from being lonely. It’s a bridge. It makes us more human.”
“Through writing, they find out who they are. Poetry is self-discovery. You find out where you’ve been and where you’re going,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was until I was 80, now I’m enjoying it very much.”
And after the laughter and applause died down, Cavalieri read one of her signature poems, about her grandparents’ Italian restaurant in Trenton, NJ. The poem’s topic? Something everyone loves – besides Grace – pizza.
Cavalieri came to HoCoPoLitSo’s very first event, on Nov. 19, 1974, with poets Carolyn Kizer and Lucille Clifton. And she started reading her work and teaching workshops with us in 1980, and was our poet-in-residence to the county schools in the 2002 to 2003 academic year. The students and teachers loved her for her energy and enthusiasm, which has not flagged a bit since then.
Cavalieri hasn’t stopped writing because she has this new laurel. Here’s her latest poem, about her latest job:
Terms of Office
for Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr. January 16, 2019
May our Governor hear the language of the people
as terms of his office.
“Language” simply means many people
Have come together to make words.
There are nearly 100,000 words in the English language
I’ve chosen exactly 246, but I want to shine them up
To speak about a man serving in high office;
A man who will walk by the beautiful waters
Of our bays, rivers, rivulets;
One who continues with inner strength
Clearing new paths with elasticity for every kind among us—
Who knows love and hope are not holiday greetings
But governing principles—
A man aspirational for humanity.
Language always leads us to the soul of each matter,
And today it rinses words clean, renewing meaning:
Independence of thought
An honorable nature
Calm in the eye of national storms.
From the rich bottom lands of southern Maryland
To the forested hills of our western state—
From the dynamic energy of northern Maryland
To his own hometown—
May our Governor’s inner spirit seek compassion before action,
May his wisdom see that the heart’s choice dictates the mind’s decisions,
May he be rewarded with radiant pride for his integrity.
In speaking of success, Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“Each one has an aptitude to do easily some feat impossible to any other
And to do otherwise undermines the talents of all others.”
May Governor Hogan be rewarded with radiant pride for his integrity.
Maryland Poet Laureate
Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary
Register online or by calling 410-313-1950.
Susan Thornton Hobby
By Laura Yoo
A popular image of book clubs is that it’s an “excuse” for women to get together to drink wine. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But my book club, which I joined two years ago, is actually a book club. The 14 member group is super organized, and we actually read the books that we choose as a group (done very democratically). There is wine and a good amount of talking politics, but overall it is a reading club. There is always robust literary discourse.
Book clubs and the battle of the sexes
Pew Research reports that 11% of Americans are involved in some kind of a reading circle or a book club. But in general book clubs are seen as something women do. Men have poker nights. Women have book clubs.
It turns out that it actually has a historical beginning as a female activity. Audra Otto, writing for MinnPost, reports 1634 as the first known instance of an organized reading group in (or on the way to) America:
On a ship headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religious renegade Anne Hutchinson organizes a female discussion group to examine sermons given at weekly services. Eventually condemned by the Bay Colony’s general assembly, the gatherings inaugurated a tradition of women’s analytical discussion of serious texts.
The banning of this organization signals that a gathering of women to share ideas was seen as dangerous or maybe even evil. But, women continued to organize elsewhere. Hannah Adams formed a reading circle in the late 1760s and Hannah Mathers Crocker in 1778. Adams’ and Crocker’s reading circles are revolutionary in that they created opportunities for women to form communities of intellectual development when women couldn’t go to school or college.
Another example of such revolutionary gatherings is the Friends in Council formed by Sarah Atwater Denman, the oldest continuous women’s literary club in America.
In November of 1866, Denman invited 11 ladies to her home to create a study plan. She wanted each member of her book club to develop a philosophical point of view for herself, and a study plan was an excellent place to begin. Over time, Friends in Council consumed great works of history and philosophy, spending two years on Plato alone.
So, historically speaking, the book club has been a female act of subversion.
Book clubs in the 21st century
A 2016 The New York Times article caused some stir when it profiled The Man Book Club, the International Ultra Manly Book Club, and the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club. The article mentioned that the The Man Book Club in California has a “No books by women about women” rule. This and other details about these men’s book clubs suggested chauvinism and sexism. The backlash was so strong that The Man Book Club issued An Apologia on their website, in which they explain how they arrived at their group name (think the Man Booker Prize) and how they select their books (which does include books by women). It seems that because book clubs are pegged as “female” activity, these men hyper-emphasize the “man” part of their book club. While many criticized these men clubs, others like Slate’s L.V. Anderson came to their defense, saying,
We shouldn’t see all-male book clubs as a reactionary backlash against female book clubs, or an attempt to co-opt a traditionally female space, but as a way for men to enjoy the social and intellectual benefits of book clubs without destroying the homosocial camaraderie of all-female book clubs.
Today, book clubs go beyond groups of friends getting together to read and chat. Websites like Meetup.com and other social media tools help us organize or join groups with strangers. The NYC Gay Guy’s Book Club, for instance, has 120 members on Meetup.com and anywhere between 10 to 60 members show up for a meeting at a public library. The search results for book clubs in my area include The Girly Book Club of Baltimore, Intersectional LGBTQ+ Allies Book Club for Women of DMV, and the Silent Reading Club (of Rockville). I am particularly loving this idea of gathering in a group to read silently.
Recently, I was invited to attend another friend’s book club gathering to talk about Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. This was a much smaller group – there were only four of us that night. We got comfy on the couch, drank wine, talked about the book a little, then talked mostly about our families, our kids, education and schools, about how we grew up, and even some politics. It was a lovely evening.
Book clubs are not about the books (only)
I think we can see that the book club is not always (only) about books. For many, the book club is a way to see friends and form meaningful bonds, as both the Man Book Club and the International Ultra Manly Book Club report. For others, the book club is a way to meet new people. As Jon Tomlinson, founder of the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club says, “People come to connect, to find their place in a new city, to fall in love.”
For Scarlett Cayford, the book club was a way to meet people when she moved to London – four years later, she was still going to the same book club. As Cayford says, book clubs are not about books – they are “about bonding, and they’re about conversation, and they’re about sharing secrets. I can’t speak for all, of course, but the book clubs I‘ve attended usually end up involving about 30 minutes of intense book discussion […] and nigh on three hours on the subject of different sexual proclivities.”
Well, my book club does not discuss sexual proclivities. Nonetheless, I look forward to my monthly book club gatherings for two reasons. First is that I have time built into my schedule to see my friends. We take turns hosting at our homes and facilitating the discussion. I enjoy the company of these women who are my colleagues, mentors, and friends – and I cherish the opportunities to see them regularly.
The second is that the book club makes me read. Sometimes – like my students – I cram my reading just a few days before the gathering. Recently, I’ve had to admit to myself that I watch more than I read. I’m much more likely to pick up my tablet or turn the TV on to binge-watch something deliciously useless. After a long day at work and shuttling the kids around, it’s a relief to change into pajamas and cozy up in my “reading chair” to watch the outrageously handsome Hyun Bin in a Korean drama or ass-kicking Keri Russell in The Americans. I used to actually read in that reading chair. After a long day at work and shuttling kids around, it was a relief to get lost in a good book. But the ease of accessing television shows on mobile devices is oh-so-tempting. So, my book club is my antidote to binge-watching.
This month, our book club is reading Word by Word by Kory Stamper. I am not sure what my book club members are feeling about it – we haven’t met yet – but I am loving every page of this book. I am a word-nerd, and I am savoring the juicy details of how the dictionary is written and how we may be in the middle of a seismic shift in the meaning of “of” (as suggested by the newfangled phrase “bored of” as opposed to “bored from” and “bored with”). I’m giddy about exchanging tweets with Stamper about her use of the word “goddamned” which I found amusing. I’m enjoying the book, for sure. But I’m REALLY going to enjoy talking about it with my friends this week.
I don’t know about subversion and rebellion and all that, but I know I enjoy the company of my friends, books, and wine – that’s a powerful combination.
Save the Date! HoCoPoLitSo is sponsoring a book club of cli-fi, climate fiction, at the Miller Library, one book each season. The first book, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, will be discussed April 4, 7 to 8 p.m. Discussion will be led by Susan Thornton Hobby, a consultant to HoCoPoLitSo, and Julie Dunlap, a writer and environmental educator. More details to come!
Before the Columbia Festival of the Arts box office even opened in 1996, tickets for the reading by Mary Oliver were long sold out.
Word had spread like wildfire about her appearance, and the famous Oliver, a quiet soul who didn’t travel much from her home in Massachusetts, read once, and only once, for HoCoPoLitSo. We tried for years to lure her back, but failed. Oliver died January 17, 2019, from lymphoma.
Before that June day in 1996, ninety writers sent in poems for a workshop, which Oliver conducted in the Slayton House dance studio. If you were one of those poets, we want to hear what Oliver said about your work. We hope you kept her notes.
After the workshop, Oliver packed Slayton House’s auditorium with 250 people. The late Lucille Clifton, another poet who is now no longer with us, introduced Oliver, the Pulitzer winner, this way, “To call her a nature poet is like calling Pavarotti a singer.”
Afterwards, Oliver, who is “reclusive, but not shy,” says HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Kennedy, chatted over chicken salad and fruit kebabs at the Kennedy home.
“I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together,” Oliver explained about her work.
She’s become an Instagrammable poet, an inspirational poet. She asked her readers, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” (link to “The Summer Day”)
But her work reaches people because it’s authentic, it’s true. Above all, she is a masterful poet.
Her images – of the grasshopper’s jaws moving sideways to mouth the sugar that Oliver fed her, of the lights going out behind her as journeys away from her home, of the wild geese streaking the sky – remain with me. I am always hoping that I can live like she did, “from day to day from/ one golden page to another.” (link to “Forty Years”)
by Susan Thornton Hobby
HCPLS Recording secretary
Tara Hart is a Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitSo, and she is known for her beautiful introductions to the guest authors that we host. Below is her introduction to Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spirs, and David Yezzi. These authors read at the Lucille Clifton Reading Series on October 26, 2018 at Howard Community College’s Monteabaro Recital Hall. The introduction has been edited for the blog.
HoCoPoLitSo’s autumn reading series is named for Lucille Clifton, our late artistic advisor, distinguished master poet, and dear friend. We seek to craft a fall event each year that honors the caliber of her poetry and contributions to poetry, but also honors her spirit of connection, inquiry, and social justice, and her love for life and learning. She always let us know if HoCoPoLitSo was up to the mark and we know we would have had her fullest approval and blessing for the season opening event with three master poets Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi.
These poets each have quite distinctive rhythms, tones, and subjects. But when I read their work in proximity to each other, fascinating connections emerge and start to tell a compelling story of the wonder of ordinary experience. When I say “wonder,” I do not mean it is all wonderful. But there is wonder in how many shades a life can hold, how many complexities and contradictions and paradoxes, and yes, how much darkness can be present yet still allow for light. In the work of these poets, you see free verse, but also elegantly structured quatrains, villanelles, and sonnets; there are some explicit references to other contemporary poets but also to King Lear, Keats, Emily Dickinson. These poets include a lot of snow in their poems, a lot of birds and flowers, dreams and ghosts, but also Instagram, humblebrags, and hashtags, anxiety medication, soap operas, game shows, videogames, even Patrick Swayze. There are terrifyingly timely poems about being a 21st century man with terrifying impulses. About guns, plagues, and tragedies in daylight. About those who abuse others’ trust and those who enable abusers. About inadequate rulers, about resistance, about the need to “stay human” amidst the news, the smartphones, and the loneliness.
These poets help us understand both the timeless and contemporary purposes of poetry, this singing and where it might come from. Using some of their own words now, we can see how poetry is “Like the weather that is never one thing.” It might be about making “bright things from shadows.” Poems might be stacks of perfectly balanced rocks or cairns, with words like roaring shells you hold up to your ear that say neither yes nor no, but to which we listen. Poets might be beggars with empty bowls peddling “poems that were never ours though we wrote them”; poets might write from bruised places or from the “place where a night/bird sings.”
All three poets’ work is full of wings (birds, ghosts, leaves, moths, bees, oars) “drumming and drumming.” They drum of ordinary regrets: our missed turns, going away for too long, getting lost, doing things that can’t be undone. Our desires, our clutter. Our “wingless feet.” Our ordinary worries: about children, about loss, about dying. “The terror of all that could befall me, you.”
These poets show us the nature of inquiry: “here in this place, there are no names on the map. There is no map.” They ask “What does it mean to be alive?” Why is “happiness so fleet”? “What is our hate made of?” “What will be left when each thing goes?” “Is it enough? To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?”
Finally, in Elizabeth Spires’ poem “Starry Night,” she gives us faith that the light of artists keeps travelling like stars, never darkening, never dying. As we stumble, they still shine, so we should keep looking up to them, working wonders.
This essay originally appeared on Nerdy Book Club and has been reposted here for HoCoPoLitSo readers with the permission of the author and Nerdy Book Club. The original posting can be found here: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/a-long-way-to-go-on-gun-violence-by-laura-shovan/
We woke up on Thursday morning to news of another mass shooting in America, this time at a California bar. It was college night. As the mom of two college students, I was shaken once again. It had only been eleven days since Jews were gunned down in their Pittsburgh synagogue. Twelve since a man killed two people at a grocery store after he was unable enter a predominantly black church nearby.
Writers and publishers are producing a growing number of books for children and teens about gun violence. In This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, readers witness a mass school shooting through the eyes of several narrators. Marisa Reichardt’s Underwater offers a thoughtful study of a school shooting survivor who suffers from PTSD. The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas — in which a girl witnesses the police shooting her best friend, a black teen — is now a movie.
These are important books. Kids need these stories as they struggle to understand what we are all struggling with: gun violence is impacting their generation. But what they also need are books that carefully examine our culture’s relationship to violence.
Last weekend, a friend and I saw the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down. The verse novel was adapted for the stage by Martine Kei Green-Rogers and directed by Timothy Douglas. The play follows the book’s plot: When his older brother Shawn is shot and killed, fifteen-year-old Will follows the rules handed down by the men in his family: “No crying. No snitching. Always seek revenge.” The story takes place as Will rides his building’s elevator – gun tucked into the back of his pants – down to the street, where he plans to shoot his brother’s killer. During that ride, the ghosts of past gun violence in Will’s life visit him, forcing him to look at how each loss has hardened him. He begins to question what he is about to do.
This production was, remarkably, a one-act, one-man show, with actor Justin Weaks playing not only Will, but also the people he has lost. That choice drives home an important point: Will carries each murdered friend and family member deep in his psyche. Each ghost’s visitation peels back a layer of Will’s armor, and we see him feeling emotions most boys are taught to hide: fear, grief, sadness. I won’t go into the wonders of the staging – how the coffin-like elevator was recreated, its mirrored walls reflecting the actor’s face as Will reflects on the people he’s lost.
I am still trying to piece together my reactions to Long Way Down after reading the book, experiencing this production, and interviewing Jason Reynolds for a local television series called “The Writing Life.” What sets this book apart is that act of peeling back layers of grief. Readers connect with Will’s first-person voice straight away. We are already rooting for him to make a different choice, even as we understand his in-the-moment decision to punish the person who took his brother’s life. However, as Reynolds introduces us to the ghosts, the reader or audience member begins to understand intergenerational violence and how traumatizing it is for children, especially children of color.
I was grateful that after the standing ovation, a facilitator was on hand to help people process what we had just witnessed. As audience members shared their stories – best friends, siblings lost to gun violence – I was in denial. “Gun violence hasn’t touched me directly,” I thought. But of course, it has. My friend was at our local mall in Columbia, Maryland, during a shooting in 2014. She sheltered in place in a cramped store-room for hours before the all-clear was given. On New Year’s Day, 2017, my neighbor’s fifteen-year-old daughter – my daughter’s friend – was shot and killed by a classmate who had stolen a gun and broken into their house.
Another act of violence in our community was one of the inspirations for my recent middle grade novel, Takedown. On a winter evening in 2007, an ongoing argument between two groups of teens escalated. They went to an empty high school parking lot for a rumble. One boy, a highly-ranked wrestler in the county, brought a bat. He killed another teen that night. I remember sitting down with my son, who was ten years old at the time and part of the county’s tight-knit wrestling community. As a family, we talked about the idea that at any point that evening, the teens involved could have made another choice and walked away from the fight. In Long Way Down, Will’s elevator ride is his moment to decide whether he is going to walk away and step out of the cycle of violence.
Although I decided to tone down the violent moment in my story of a middle school girl who joins an all-boys wrestling team, writing about a traditionally male combat sport gave me an opportunity to look at this issue. And this week, I am reminded that our society is paying the price for celebrating violence among boys and men, whether we actively teach them to seek revenge, or we subtly look the other way under the guise of “boys will be boys.”
Books like Long Way Down are necessary, because they can help us talk with children and teens about the cost of violence, and what it means to walk away.
Laura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, won several awards, including NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book, and a Nerdy Book Club award for poetry. Laura’s second children’s novel, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Library selection. Look for her next book, A Place at the Table, co-written with author/activist Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in her home state of Maryland.
BY LAURA YOO
All day Saturday, I was cocooned inside the warmth and protection of poetry at the 17th Biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey. So I didn’t know what was going on out in the world and I didn’t know what would happen the next day. I didn’t know that another terrible news story was brewing. But maybe the poetry knew.
My friend and I left Columbia at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in Newark by 10:00. We planned to stay for 6 hours of poetry and head back home that night. We were ambitious.
At the very first session, Jan Beatty, Tina Chang, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Danez Smith blew us away. Their poetry tore me apart with its heartache, beauty, hope, violence, and revelation. Somehow, I felt like each poem was about me or for me. How could that be? How could every poem be about fathers or about being a mother? Of course, that’s not really true. Poems are about lots of things. But what I realized is that poems touch you and maybe even hurt you where you are most vulnerable. For me, I am most vulnerable in my identity as a mother to two boys and I am most sensitive about the loss of my father who died eight years ago. Those are the two places that are the softest and yet the toughest because that’s where I hold so much fear, joy, sadness, regrets, and hope.
At a session called “Crossing Boundaries,” I heard tenderness in Joy Ladin‘s reading, defiance in Natalie Scenters-Zapico‘s, and anger in Paul Tran‘s. The discussion that followed made me think about the complexity of boundaries – about how they work both ways. They mark inclusion and exclusion. They protect but also they reject. Barriers between English and Spanish; between man and woman; between gay and straight. As if there are these solid lines of boundary that can really contain us and separate us from one another. On the other hand, the poets reminded us, there are boundaries that we need, like privacy and the inner self.
In “Poetry and the News,” Tina Chang, Aaron Coleman, Safia Elhillo, and J.C. Todd, read their poems about how poems may be an antidote to the news even as they simultaneously speak of the news. Elhillo, who is Sudanese and Muslim, talked about being tired of being the subject of the news and of being asked to speak for “her people.” Her poems, which experiment with the form of the interview, made me think of a kind of subjugation through interrogation. Chang’s poems wove together the personal and the political, our own stories and news stories.
At the last session of the day, I got to hear Hieu Minh Nguyen, Nancy Reddy, sam sax, and J.C. Todd. And as Todd read the last line of the last poem for the session, the room went completely dark and silent – the power had gone out due to manhole covers blowing out in front of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center down the street. It seemed like a totally appropriate response to the powerful readings of these poets.
As Newark was burning below, green and black smoke oozing out from underground, and losing its power – literally but not literarily – my friend and I left and drove three hours back to Columbia. We talked nonstop during that ride about all that we had seen, heard, and felt. When we got home, we had more to say, so we continued our talk over 막걸리 (rice wine) and 부대찌개 (Korean “army stew”). There was poetry in those Korean soul foods, too.
The next day, I was still reeling from the trip when I saw many posts on Facebook and Instagram supporting the LGBTQ+ people. I thought, “What now? What’s going on?” I googled “transgender in the news” and saw the following headlines:
“The Trauma of the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Transgender People”
“Trump administration considers elimination of transgender recognition”
Dodge must have seen it coming. It was like the poets were predicting dire situations with their panels about boundaries, identities, bodies, and the news. With sessions like “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am: Poetry and Identity” and “Whose Body?” Dodge Poetry Festival was preparing us, giving us the energy and the ammunition we would need to engage in the political (and emotional) fight against moves that take away rights, take away protection, and take away personhood.
And I know, too, that all the poetry in the world cannot fix what needs to be fixed if we don’t vote.
Read poetry. Vote. That’s what I will do.
Join forces with author, library and HoCoPoLitSo to offer a book of dreams for everyone
The inside cover of Jason Reynolds’s book For Every One says it all. We’re supposed to pass it on. The book’s dedication reads, “For You. For Me.”
His book is about dreams, and how hard one must work to achieve them. He wrote about trying to focus on his ambitions:
“So I went out and bought all the books on all the ways to make dreams come true, laying out the how-to, somehow spinning life into a fantastic formula for dummies and dream chasers, written by experts and dream catchers who swear that I can one plus one and right foot left foot my way into fulfillment, never taking into consideration all this mess I got strapped to my back and my head and my legs and my heart.”Reynolds wants everyone to hear about following dreams. So does HoCoPoLitSo. The Howard County Library and HoCoPoLitSo are joining forces to bring Reynolds to speak to the East Columbia Library Oct. 9. And we’d like to share this gift of a book. The library and HoCoPoLitSo are raising money to give out 100 copies of For Every One to students who attend his reading. Pupils from Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake, and Harper’s Choice middle schools will be bused to the reading, joining lots of Reynolds’ fans at the event. Register here for the event. Every dollar raised is matched one to one by funds from the Kathleen Glascock Challenge, a memorial fund named for an inspiring Clarksville Middle School media specialist who believed that books could change lives. She and Reynolds would have had a lot to talk about. It’s hard not to get goose bumps when Reynolds, who didn’t read a book cover to cover until he was nearly 18, talks about teenagers. “All I want kids to know is that I see them for who they are and not who everyone thinks they are,” he told the Washington Post last year. Reynolds, now a best-selling author with nine books, a Newbery Honor, and National Book Award finalist on his resume, says he wants to tell the stories that he wasn’t seeing on library and bookstore shelves – tales of black and brown teenagers handling tough issues. His goal is “putting that on the page with integrity and balance, to acknowledge the glory and the brokenness. That’s all I want to do. It’s a lot, but so are they.” Librarians around the county can’t keep his books on the shelves, and they’re thrilled that Reynolds is coming to read. Anne Reis, media specialist at Homewood Center, the alternative school in Howard County, was introducing Jason Reynolds to two classes of “very reluctant readers,” as she called them. They were disruptive, she remembers, until she started playing a “The Daily Show” clip of Trevor Noah’s talk with Reynolds, who emphasized the importance of hip-hop to his writing, and how young people are the antidote to hopelessness. “They heard the truth of his message and that he respects them and wants to write for them … . They were completely silent,” Reis said. “A pin could have dropped and you would have heard it. Jason Reynolds has an authenticity in his writing that speaks to the kids at my school. They are psyched to meet him in October!” Donate here: https://hclibrary.org/classes-events/glascock-challenge-seeks-to-inspire-reluctant-readers
Susan Thornton HobbyRecording secretary, HoCoPoLitSo Board
I had never heard of Marilyn Chin. But there I sat in the hazy Smith Theatre, listening to the petite, flip-flop-clad lady unfold her Chinese heritage, her voice’s rich resonance baptizing life into her words. Peppered with rhetorical questions and salted with snark, Marilyn Chin’s poetry invited the audience into conversation. As she discussed her experience with assimilation, I thought back to my years of insecurity with my Nigerian identity.
During my childhood, I tugged at my belly, my hair, my skin. I hunched in over myself. But I remember watching a spoken word from YouTube during youth group, the same lines which had echoed through my house the entire week prior because my mom, the youth leader, had been so fascinated by the video. Ears straining to keep up with the whiplash tempo, the laughing cadence, I snapped my fingers, riveted by the rain of spitfire, desperately beckoning the words barked out of the poets’ lips to be mine.
Slam poetry was alive.
A tandem of voice and pulse, spoken word went beyond sonnets and “thou”s and lofty declarations of love; it playfully teased out slant-rhymes and sidestepped the conventions of language. Poetry, I discovered, could be as unorthodox as I wished, and listening to the crowd of adroit artists (cough-SarahKay-PatrickRoche-BlytheBaird-OmarHolmon-cough) has since stirred a hunger.
Maybe I am looking for truth, naked and unholy. Maybe I write because I’m looking to sing what could be my gospel, to scream it in the shower, to spit it into the mic, to whisper it in an ear, to let it breathe ink and paper and dust.
While I write, I’ve knocked on Petrarch’s door, revisiting the poetry I once scoffed, imbibing in myself a greater appreciation for the art. Analyzing syntax and diction is what I love to do—maybe because I regularly eye my friends’ texts. (There’s a world of difference between “ok” and “Okay.”) While I am yet to be convinced that every inch of a poem is birthed from divine inspiration, I nevertheless believe that the spectrum of poetry—from spoken word to the coffee-stained margins—contains a delicateness that ought to be explored with careful hands and open eyes. As a writer, I wish to infuse electric vulnerability in my writing, inviting readers and listeners to unwind, to laugh, to have conversation.
Eunice Braimoh finds herself in a limbo between cultures: in her room hangs the Nigerian flag, while Maryland’s mosaic fusion has grafted itself into her heart. As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, she wishes to symphonize conversation regarding race, gender, and diversity. When not effusively fangirling over slam poetry and intricate word-play, Eunice can be found writing (and rewriting) her own poetry and fiction. Previously recognized with two Regional Keys from the D.C. Metro Region, Eunice recently received a Silver Key for her poem “in which icarus does not drown”. She will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as an English major starting this fall.
Poetry doesn’t vote. It can’t rule. It sits on no juries. It signs nothing into law. It neither runs companies or organizes houses of worship. And, it never ever wins an Academy award or Olympic Gold Medal. Or, war. On all of these fronts that matter, poetry is powerless. And for that very reason, of course, it is incredibly powerful.
Poetry is our grins, our anger, your life, my death. It’s the birds that stitch air. It’s the soul of night, the feast of day, and that ever present caution that’s careless. Poetry doesn’t decide. It doesn’t provide. If it answers at all, it does so with questions. And, to be honest, poetry doesn’t care; it cares as deeply as wells do, yes, but it never brings you water. It wants nothing from you except wanting – this is probably its most gifting power.
And it soars, when allowed to, over just about anything else we can imagine. It’s not the clouds above so much, but our need for them. Said all at once, poetry is powerful for what it cannot be, and for the dreams it wants.
If you should ever encounter a poem that makes you jump, ask yourself why. Most likely, the answer – if there is one – will be from so far-fully inside you that ancestors will wink.
Finally, poetry is really nowhere and so it’s just about everywhere around us. It lives in the corner of your eye. It watches everything from the side. Poetry is the best glancer of all. It also aches with whatever is gone. And, it cheers – even raves – for what may never be. All to say, thank goodness – and badness – for poetry, and for our never being completely sure how powerfully potent it really is.
Hiram Larew’s work has appeared most recently in Little Patuxent Review, FORTH, vox poetica, Poetry Super Highway, Poets & Artists, Every Day Poems, Lunaris Review (Nigeria), Amsterdam Quarterly, and The Wild Word. Author of three collections, he’s been nominated for four national Pushcart prizes, is a member of the Shakespeare Folger Library’s poetry board, and organizes several events in Prince George’s County, Maryland and beyond including Poetry X Hunger and The Poetry Poster Project. He is a global hunger specialist, and lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
This piece first appeared in Echo World, and subsequently in Poets & Artists, Tales from the Forest, Miriam’s Well (blog) and Huffington Post’s Thrive Global.